The JOSHUA LIGHT SHOW

Posted: October 23, 2020 in MUSIC
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The Joshua Light Show, created by Joshua White, was a liquid light show. It was known for its psychedelic art and served as a lighting backdrop behind many live band performances during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Joshua White is renowned for his light show at the Fillmore East in the late sixties and early seventies. Employing an arsenal of various trailblazing effects, including the now-iconic “liquid light”, the Joshua Light Show catapulted Fillmore crowds into cosmic depths from which many have yet to return.

In his post-Fillmore life, White has gone on to a career in television direction and mixed-media art. But he continues to keep a few fingers dipped in the liquid light.

The show at the Fillmore was perfect for its time and I don’t wish to recreate it. I’m interested in regenerating some of the visual techniques and forms that I thought were very important when I was doing it back then and that I haven’t had a great deal of opportunity to do in the present. Because of our situation and where we were at the Fillmore, we were able to improvise on a very large, thirty to forty foot canvas behind the musicians as they performed. We had a knowledge of their music but we weren’t following any score, we were just improvising, making something visual using our tools.

When we did the light show we were forced by the limitations of the technology of the time to develop very high powered projectors and light sources that could punch through a large rear projection screen and be highly visible for the audience, while at the same time allowing for the musicians to be properly lit. Only recently has the technology evolved to the point where there actually are ways you can project that are very powerful and don’t require big equipment. Most of them involve video projection. So this show is a merging of the old heavy duty projection techniques with the modern video projection techniques.

If we accept the premise that “the sixties” sort of began in 1965, I was very young and I wanted to come up with something interesting to do. Something that was visually reflective of everything that was going on in terms of music and fashion and lifestyle. Because I had been trained in theatre at Carnegie Tech and film at USC, I had all the skills but I could not find a place where I could make work that was really exciting. But things began to change in the mid sixties and I was able to start doing fashion shows that used lighting and film effects. And I was able to design and build lighting for discothèques – and there’s a big difference between the old discothèques and the 70s ‘discos’ that we all think about. The discothèques were much more refined affairs. So I actually had a business with several other associates…

And just by sheer good luck one of the people working with us happened to have a relationship with the agency that represented Bill Graham. And Bill Graham had been quite successful in San Francisco producing these very interesting shows in a ballroom called the Fillmore. And you went in, everybody paid cash, the band got up and played, the light show performed all over the walls, people walked around in various states and it was very groovy.

And in the summer of ‘67 Bill was asked to transport the whole idea to Toronto for a week. And they wanted to have a Summer of Love San Francisco week in Toronto. Bill agreed to come and bring the Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead and hire a local band. The problem was that the place where they wanted to stage it was a traditional theatre. So they went into this theatre and the light show wanted to cut off the balcony – which had very valuable seats – and do their traditional light show. And they wanted somebody preferably not from San Francisco to serve as the people in between – in between the reality of the event and the practicality of the theatre. And that was me.

So we went and we figured out a way that the light show could perform without tying off the balcony and we provided environmental lighting. And at the last minute I even had to do the stage lighting because the person who was supposed to do it got busted trying to get into Canada carrying drugs. And what happened is that the Dead and the Airplane played for a week and the San Francisco light show performed on a rear projection screen that was our design. And we provided other lights and things that went around the room to give it a ballroom effect. And I sat in the back and called the lights. In those days calling the lights was basically going from red to amber to red-amber and back to red again. There was no real lighting; it was just a glow. But I had to do it for eight performances and watch The Dead and The Airplane play and at the same time stare at the San Francisco light show. And I was just transformed. I said, “I love the music and I need to do these light shows – I need to do that light show specifically.”

And then we got lucky again. We were there in Toronto doing the shows and the Summer of Love was a concept that didn’t have a lot of real life applied to it. So it turned out that the San Francisco light show, which was called Head Lights, were fighting with each other. They hated each other. They were doing the shows but they were fighting and fighting backstage. Literally right in the middle of the run they broke up. They continued to do the work, of course, but half of the light show, a man named Glenn McKay, sort of began to fall in with us. And he came back to New York with us and we built him a new light show because we had the technology. And he in turn showed us the mixing techniques for the oil and the water. And Glenn and I have been friends for 40 years.

And from that point on, from the fall of ‘67, we were the Joshua Light Show and it was just a matter of finding work. And we were happy to let go of all the disco lighting and the fashion shows. Then Bill Graham came to New York and decided to open the Fillmore East and we were, of course, the light show. But Bill didn’t give us our start; we were already doing it and Bill came to town. And he couldn’t have treated us better or paid us better. It was heaven for two years.

Because the light show didn’t have to actually connect with the musicians; we could enjoy them. We were performing behind them but we were only 18 feet away. And our prep room was literally next door to the star dressing room at the Fillmore. And none of those layers of security were there. We just hung. So the really nice musicians were great and the ones that were pricks we didn’t talk to. But it made no difference, we were literally in the same place, we were right in each other’s faces.

And it was a time when we did two shows on Friday and two shows on Saturday. Tickets started, by the way, at two dollars, two-fifty. And it was a reserve seat so everyone who came was guaranteed a seat. And because it was a theater they were looking forward, not wandering around. So we felt the light show had to be very disciplined; we couldn’t mess around. We had to really be good. And being good – aside from the visuals – was starting on time, listening to the music, finishing on time. So we got it all; we go to hang with The Who, we got to perform behind them and we have great memories of them but I can’t tell you that we palled around a lot because they were musicians and we were visual artists

Memories of anyone acting particularly crazy? Oh sure… Let me see, who acted crazy? There was good crazy, which was The Who. They were wonderful crazy because they were sort of these rough edged guys and they brought their own rough edge guys with them. Anybody with an English accent in those days ruled. They were The Who, they were the best band in the world. But a lot of the musicians by the time they got to the Fillmore, especially the most established ones like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin that had already made a name for themselves were a little bit…what would be the word… they were alcoholics. So there was a lot of bizarre, alcoholic sort of behavior. But Bill Graham was really a great entrepreneur, really the greatest I’ve ever experienced, and he kept everybody in line. So even though there was always some kind of craziness there was never a sense of danger. I don’t remember ever failing to put on a show. I cannot remember a band not ultimately giving four great performances.

Fortunately, as a light show we were just too busy pleasing people in a visual sense to be deeply drawn into the politics of the time. There was just no time. But we appreciated it and we certainly did everything we could to support this movement, even though nobody really knew what it was. And we marched on Washington and did all of those things but we were apolitical. And it turned out so were the bands. And the bands that were very political, like MC5 and people like that really lost their fan base or they got confused.

Because Bill Graham decided that the audience needed to have something to look at besides a bunch of musicians in street clothes tuning up. So he spent the money to have a light show; there was no precedent before that. And after he stopped there weren’t a whole lot of light shows afterwards. He spent over a thousand dollars a week to have this light show and he gave me his undiluted trust to do it, he made no demands, he just trusted me and I honoured that trust by delivering an amazingly fine light show that pleased people because it filled in the visual part.

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